David Fincher rose from humble beginnings (music videos for Madonna and Alien3) to become one of the most influential filmmakers of the decade through films like Se7en and Fight Club, but since 2002’s Panic Room, he’s been associated with dozens of films that never got made (or got made without him).
So, it’s with some anticipation that his newest film about the Zodiac Killer is met, and it’s not surprising that it perhaps doesn’t meet with expectations.
Zodiac is a sprawling story, not primarily of the Zodiac killer, but of Robert Graysmith, an editorial cartoonist who becomes obsessed with deducing the identity of a crazed killer who is writing taunting letters to the newspaper where he works.
This is more a film on the lines of Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Silence of the Lambs. The only violence is early on: The Zodiac went on a little spree early on in his “career” and this is shown somewhat graphically. But really, this is practically a Fincher movie for people who don’t like Fincher movies. After the initial spurt of violence, you still have two hours of psychological suspense thriller to endure.
Despite finding it rather low key, I rather liked it, but this is my kind of film. Alongside the always good Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards and Robert Downey, Jr. (typecast as a guy who ends up drinking and drugging his way to obscurity), it was peppered with short, solid performances from lesser known actors who still usually play meatier roles: Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, Candy Clark, Dermot Mulroney, Philip Baker Hall, James Le Gros, Charles Fleischer, and on and on. (The only place this may have backfired, ever-so-slightly, is in the casting John Carroll Lynch as the pedophile prime suspect. Lynch does a great job, but I had just watched Fargo, where he plays Marge Gunderson’s gentle, artistic husband.)
In some ways, the low-key atmosphere makes the intense parts more intense, but the fidelity to actual history means there is no great climactic point—in particular, no great showdown between Graysmith and Zodiac. They do share a moment, and it’s important but not really satisfying in the cinematic KABOOM sense.
Just as it doesn’t meet some expectations, there are those who would over-hype it because it is a Fincher film, but it’s best to approach this as a competent but modest slice-of-American-history movie. It won’t actually lose much on the small screen.
Finally, some critics objected to the lack of period music: I actually thought that was one of the strongest points. Veteran David Shire (Norma Rae, All The President’s Men) provides a score that’s way less self-conscious and hip than, say, playing The White Album would’ve been. Although the story takes place in a let’s-call-it-”colorful” period of history, it also transcends the time.
(originally posted 2007-03-11)